The SIXTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution guarantees all persons accused of criminal wrongdoing the right to a speedy trial. Although this right is derived from the federal Constitution, it has been made applicable to state criminal proceedings through the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of the DUE PROCESS and EQUAL PROTECTION Clauses of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT.
The right to a speedy trial is an ancient liberty. During the reign of HENRY II (1154?1189), the English Crown promulgated the Assize of Clarendon, a legal code comprised of 22 articles, one of which promised speedy justice to all litigants. In 1215 the MAGNA CHARTA prohibited the king from delaying justice to any person in the realm. Several of the charters of the American
colonies protected the right to a speedy trial, as did most of the constitutions of the original 13 states.
The Founding Fathers intended the Speedy Trial Clause to serve two purposes. First, they sought to prevent defendants from languishing in jail for an indefinite period before trial. Pre-trial incarceration is a deprivation of liberty no less serious than post-conviction imprisonment. In some cases pretrial incarceration may be more serious because public scrutiny is often heightened, employment is commonly interrupted, financial resources are diminished, family relations are strained, and innocent persons are forced to suffer prolonged injury to reputation.
Second, the Founding Fathers sought to ensure a defendant's right to a fair trial. The longer the commencement of trial is postponed, the more likely it is that witnesses will disappear, memories will fade, and evidence will be lost or destroyed. Of course, both the prosecution and the defense are threatened by these dangers, but only the defendant's life, liberty, and property are at stake in a criminal proceeding.
The right to a speedy trial does not apply to every stage of a criminal case. It arises only after a person has been arrested, indicted, or otherwise formally accused of a crime by the government. Before the point of formal accusation, the government is under no Sixth Amendment obligation to investigate, accuse, or prosecute a defendant within a specific amount of time.
Nor does the Speedy Trial Clause apply to post-trial criminal proceedings, such as PROBATION and PAROLE hearings. If the government drops criminal charges during the middle of a case, the Speedy Trial...